A programme for prospective professors
Preparing for a career in academia? The opportunity to acquire training in areas as varied as ethics, writing and team management can help to pave the way, say the coordinators of an EU-funded programme that supported 29 promising postdocs. A follow-on project is under way.
© Nejron Photo #273145672, source:stock.adobe.com 2019
In total, the EU-funded programme EPFL Fellows now in its second incarnation will have involved more than 70 aspiring academics, says project coordinator Caroline Vandevyver of Switzerlands Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Of the 29 researchers who benefited from fellowships in the initial 5-year project, which ended in April 2018, 9 went on to senior academic positions, 13 obtained a second postdoc contract in academia, and 7 accepted R&D positions in other sectors. In fact, she adds, 5 of them did so before they even completed their fellowships: EPFL Fellows I was designed to support 24 postdocs, with new opportunities offered as places freed up.
These figures reflect the projects success. With a third of the fellows already on their way towards professorship and nearly half in a second postdoc position and therefore likely to remain in academia, we have achieved our aims, Vandevyver notes, commenting on the outcomes of the first round in July 2019.
The programme was launched to fill a gap in the EPFL fellowship schemes. EPFL already had a lot of experience running mobility programmes, notably for PhD students and incoming tenure-track researchers academics who have already secured positions likely to develop into a professorship, Vandevyver explains. But, at the time, we did not have one designed to attract excellent young researchers between their first postdoc position and an academic career.
Given the enthusiastic response to the offer proposed by EPFL, which elicited far more outstanding applications than the initial project was scaled to support, a second project designed for twice the number of fellows was set up in July 2015. With one year to go, EPFL Fellows II appears to be just as successful, Vandevyver reports.
Trained for tenure
Both the hosting institution and the fellows gain from the interaction, Vandevyver explains: Attracting outstanding researchers is an asset to the work and the visibility of EPFL, and the fellows benefit from the dedicated training and support provided at a critical stage in their careers. Postdocs aiming for an academic career are only a small part of the entire community, and schemes supporting them in this choice were rare in Europe when EPFL Fellows was launched, she notes.
In contrast, programmes empowering postdocs for careers in private-sector R&D and innovation were more frequent, Vandevyver adds. With EPFL Fellows, we want to give successful applicants the necessary tools to apply for tenure-track positions whether they decide to do so at EPFL or elsewhere.
These tools notably include a diverse set of skills which fellows are invited to hone through training in areas as varied as research ethics, publication writing and team management. The training modules for the fellows are also accessible to all other researchers at EPFL, Vandevyver notes, pointing out another lasting benefit to the institution.
Training is, however, just part of EPFL Fellows appeal. The aspiring academics the programme supports benefit from two-year employment contracts to carry out their research at EPFL.
This gives them access to the hosting researchers expertise as well as to the infrastructure and critical mass of knowledge needed to advance their work, Vandevyver explains. The scheme also provides opportunities to build or boost their personal networks, not just in their chosen field but also across other disciplines, making connections that will stand them in good stead throughout their careers.
Without the support provided by the European Commission through its Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, it is unlikely EPFL Fellows would have got off the ground, Vandevyver notes. You need a framework. We were very pleased to have been funded, that the first round was so successful, and that the programme was funded a second time. It seems that Europe believes in us!
As a next step, EPFL intends to develop a permanent support structure for its entire postdoc community, says Vandevyver, emphasising that this service will not require further financial assistance from the EU. The outcomes and insights of EPFL Fellows will feed into the process, due to kick off early next year, and will also draw on other initiatives set up by individual groups within the institution.
The shape of the new structure has yet to be defined, Vandevyver concludes. Something along the lines of an EPFL postdoc career centre, where we put all of those elements together, maybe? There are several proposals which will all be discussed early next year.